First Seal

SYNOPSIS:  The Lamb now breaks open the first seal, releasing a rider carrying a bow and riding a white horse – Revelation 6:1-2.

White Horse Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
Following his enthronement, the Lamb began to break open the seven seals, beginning with the first four viewed as a group. His authority to open the Sealed Scroll is based on his sacrificial death. From his enthronement in Chapter 5, the book of Revelation portrays events and processes symbolically which were put into motion by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first four seal openings release riders on four different-colored horses. Each is authorized to inflict destruction, but only within the limits set by the Lamb, who remains in firm control. This is indicated by the repeated use of the verb “give” (“it was given to him…”), and the explicitly stated limits (“a fourth part of the earth”).
  • (Revelation 6:1-2) – “And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as with a voice of thunder—Go! And I saw, and lo! a white horse,—and he that was sitting thereon holding a bow; and there was given unto him a crown, and he went forth conquering, and that he might conquer.” – (The Emphasized Bible)
The opening of the first four seals is part of a vision that began when John was summoned “in the spirit” and found himself observing the Throne at the center of the created order. The glorious figure on the Throne held a scroll in his right hand sealed shut by seven seals. The Messiah of Israel, identified as the “slain Lamb,” was the only person in the entire Cosmos who was found worthy to open the Sealed Scroll, which he now begins to do.

Throughout the series of Seven Seals, it is the Lamb who breaks open each seal, and thereby, he reveals “what things must come to pass soon.” Having been enthroned, he begins to implement the contents of the Sealed Scroll. He reigns from the Throne, but the results of his actions unfold on the earth and among his churches. His reign is not detached from the created order, for he is the “beginning of the creation of God” (Revelation 3:14).

The first four seals do not present events in any chronological sequence; instead, the contents of all four are unleashed simultaneously. This is indicated by the summary statement in Verse 8; collectively, the four riders kill a “fourth of the earth.” They are modeled on the four chariots from the book of Zechariah, the “four winds of heaven” that were sent out to patrol the four corners of the earth:
  • (Zechariah 1:8-11) – “I looked by night, And lo! a man riding upon a red horse, and he was standing among the myrtle trees in the shade; and after him were horses, red, bay, and white. Then said I, What are these, my lord? And the messenger who was speaking with me, said unto me, I will shew thee what these are. So the man who was standing among the myrtle-trees responded, and said,—These are they whom Yahweh hath sent to go to and fro through the earth. Then responded they to the messenger of Yahweh, who was standing among the myrtle-trees, and said, We have gone to and fro through the earth,—and lo! all the earth resteth and is quiet” – (The Emphasized Bible)
  • (Zechariah 6:1-8) – “And once again I lifted mine eyes and looked, and lo! four chariots coming forward from between two mountains,—now, the mountains were mountains of copper. In the first chariot were red horses,—and in the second chariot, black horses; and in the third chariot, white horses,—and in the fourth chariot, horses spotted, deep red. Then began I and said unto the messenger who was speaking with me,—What are these, my lord? And the messenger answered, and said unto me,—These are the four winds of the heavens coming forward after each hath presented itself near the Lord of all the earth” – (The Emphasized Bible).
In Zechariah, the colors of the several horses have no significance beyond representing the winds that emanate from the four points of the compass. However, in Revelation, the color of each horse symbolizes the nature or mission of its rider - white represents conquest, red points to warfare, black to economic scarcity, and pale-green to pestilence. In Zechariah, the riders patrol the earth. In the book of Revelation, they unleash destruction on certain groups on the earth.

This same scriptural image lies behind the later image of the “four winds of heaven” being held back by four angels who stand at the “four corners at the earth.” That vision occurs after the sixth seal is opened, at least in its literary sequence.

The “four winds” are released only after the servants of God have been sealed (“that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree”). In other words, the forces represented by the “four winds” are unleashed simultaneously. They are associated closely with the four riders on colored horses. And the men and women “sealed” in preparation before they are unleashed are the “servants of God" (Revelation 7:1-3).

As the first rider emerges, one of the "four living creatures" summons John - “Come!” The rider is “given” authority to act by the Lamb. He holds a “victory wreath” and a “bow.” He rides out, “conquering and that he should conquer.” Apparently, the bow symbolizes conflict and may suggest warfare between nations. However, it is the second rider on a “red horse” who is linked directly to violent conflict (“it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another”).

The figure rides a “white horse.” Another suggestion is he represents Jesus who conquers his enemies, perhaps, by gospel proclamation. This idea is strengthened by the later image of the heavenly Rider on a White Horse who defeats the forces of the Beast (Revelation 19:11-21).

However, other than riding a white horse, the two figures have nothing in common. This first rider is given a “victory wreath” or stephanos, whereas, the heavenly Rider on a White Horse wears many “crowns” or diadems. This first rider carries a bow, the second wields a sword. Moreover, this first rider is commanded by the Lamb, whereas, the heavenly rider is the Lamb.
Verse 8 summarizes the effects of all four riders - death, famine, bloodshed, pestilence. Nothing positive results from any of them - They represent destructive forces. Since the first rider is a member of this group, he cannot represent the Lamb, the church, or the gospel.
Another proposal is the first rider is a counterfeit of the Lamb. The rider on the white horse represents deceivers who attack the saints of God and claim to speak for Christ (Revelation 2:2-6, 2:14-15, 2:20-21, 13:11-17).

The verb rendered “conquer” or “overcome” is nikaô (Strong’s - #G3528). The same verb is applied to the Lamb, to persevering saints, and to the Beast. Elsewhere, the Beast “conquers” saints, not nations or armies. When a satanic agent “conquers,” the victims are saints. For example:
  • (Revelation 11:7) – “And, as soon as they have completed their witnessing, the wild-beast that is to come up out of the abyss, will make war with them, and overcome them, and slay them.”
  • (Revelation 13:7-10) – “And it was given unto him, to make war with the saints, and to overcome them; and there was given him, authority against every tribe and people and tongue and nation.”
The first rider went out “conquering and that he should conquer.” The verb has no object; precisely what is conquered is not stated. A clause with two forms of the same verb is odd. The first form is a present tense participle (“conquering”), the second a verb in the aorist tense and subjunctive voice (that “he should conquer”). This may point more to his ongoing attempts to conquer rather than to his actual success at doing so.

The church at Ephesus was commended for rejecting the works of the ‘Nicolaitans,’ a compound of niké, “conquer,” and laos, or “people.” It has the sense, “conquest of people.” It is related to the Greek verb used for the “conquering” of the rider on the white horse, or nikaô. The “deeds of the Nicolaitans” were attempts to infiltrate false teachings into the church, and thereby, conquer the saints through deception.

The figure with a bow may have the god Apollo in view (Apollōn). In Greek mythology, he was an oracular deity linked with prophecy. His image carried a bow and arrow, and he was the patron deity of archery. Apollo was worshipped in the province of Asia and was considered the twin brother of the goddess Artemis.

Due to the similarity in spelling, the name ‘Apollo’ was associated with the verb apollumi, meaning, “to destroy.” The “king the angel of the Abyss” is called Apolluōn, a spelling almost identical to Apollōn and a cognate of apollumi or “destroyer.” In the Latin language, he was Articenens, the “bow-carrier.” All this suggests a link between the first rider and the god Apollo (Revelation 9:11).

Most likely, the rider on a white horse symbolizes deceivers within the church who “conquer” by deception. They are forerunners of a final onslaught by the Beast, the False Prophet, and Babylon. The “beasts of the earth” found in Verse 8 reinforces this interpretation.

White represents purity and righteousness, the “righteous deeds of the saints.” That this figure rides a white horse and wears a victory wreath makes him a parody of the Lamb. He represents deceivers working to “conquer” the saints. False teachers were already active in the churches of Asia.

Deceivers prepare the way for the final assault against the saints by the Beast, a culmination of a centuries-long effort to destroy the church (Revelation 2:2-6, 2:14-15, 2:20-24).